Thursday, February 26, 2009

Thank Goodness for Pakistan


I've spent a lot of breath and a certain number of electrons lately objecting to media portrayals of the Taliban as resurgent, of the Kabul government as corrupt or in chaos, of insurgents as somehow surrounding Kabul.

While Coalition casualties in Afghanistan do seem to be rising, with a record two dozen dying so far in February, the country overall seems relatively stable, with few civilians dying. (I'm not saying they're not intimidated or fearful, just that mortality is down.)

Perhaps this is the calm before the storm--eventually spring will come and the mountain passes will reopen, allowing Pakistan's besandaled warriors easy access to Afghanistan once again. And there's sure to be a spike in violence before the Afghan elections in August.

But all the media's fears about Afghanistan's future have already sprung to ghastly life across the border. The federal government caved to the Taliban on Swat, as noted in last week's rant.

On Wednesday, the Musharraf-picked Supreme Court not only denied Nawaz Sharif the ability to run for office, it banned his brother, the chief minister of Punjab, from holding office. This compelled Shahbaz Sharif to step down and led to direct rule from Islamabad, which is sure to please Punjabis everywhere considering the Sharif family's wide popularity.

Meanwhile, the ISI's power-projection-on-the-cheap fantasies seem to have collapsed as the Indian government has linked it ever more tightly with the Mumbai attacks. (Note to ISI leadership: Next time you send mooks to India, consider issuing them non-Pakistani identification and make sure they're not carrying Pakistan-made goods, such as pickles and Mountain Dew.)

The Mumbai attacks also apparently scotched peace talks between Pakistan and India that were making real progress, and you have to admire ISI's thinking that a war on its western front with insurgents wasn't enough that they had to ratchet up tensions on their east, raising the possibility of a two-front conflict. How well did that work the last time it was tried?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Swat Side Effects


The Times has a heartbreaker this morning in "From Pakistan, Taliban Threats Reach New York," which discusses how Pakistani Taliban in Swat target families with relatives in New York.

Speak out against the Taliban, or just demonstrate you have a steady income, and Taliban sympathizers in New York drop a dime on your family back home. Now you're on the hook for a handsome ransom to be sent or carried back to the old country on your next visit.

Bad enough that the Taliban, having discovered that operating on the Afghan-Pakistan border (within Predator range) is a bad idea, have taken their show into the next set of valleys east. Worse that Taliban mischief has already wrecked domestic and international tourism to Swat, formerly known as the Switzerland of Pakistan, reducing incomes and reducing contact with the larger world. And worse still that Islamabad is caving to the Swat Taliban in precisely the same way that it did with NWFP and FATA Taliban last year:

You fellas go ahead and enforce shari'a law, we take no interest unless you attack government forces.

All that's missing from this depressing script are the attacks on government forces, which should start around this time tomorrow. And then Islamabad will come in and messily kick the Taliban in the teeth, after which the bad guys will simply start over again in another set of valleys.

Monday, February 09, 2009

"Media as Global Diplomat"


House-hunting has kept me from commenting sooner on last Tuesday's "Media as Global Diplomat" session, put on by USIP on the breathtaking seventh floor of the Newseum. A few brief notes:

Ted Koppel moderated and told a story I'd heard him use before: A BBC documentary heightened U.S. policymakers' concern about Somali starvation in the early 1990s. The U.S. sent troops there, with an outcome we all remember (1x U.S. troops died, roughly 50x Somalis died, Pres. Clinton pulled everyone out). As a result, the U.S. and other nations refused to intervene during the Rwandan genocide. Koppel tells this story to illustrate the power of unintended consequences.

Amb. Edward Djerejian was the first to state what it had been unwise to say during the Bush administration: Policy makes up 80 percent of other publics' perceptions of U.S., while our explanations of that policy make up just 20 percent.

Amb. James Glassman, the former Under Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, was so in command of his facts and such a realist that I'm sorry he, like Robert Gates, wasn't just kept on at State. Start with our goals, Glassman urged: What are we trying to do? He also noted that the U.S. "can achieve a lot even without people liking us"; respect, he seemed to be saying, should precede affection.

But it was James Zogby who really impressed me: I'm paraphrasing here, but he felt free to say that repeating the word "water" slowly enough in Mexico so that the poor, dumb foreigners will understand is unlikely to get you a glass of agua. He also took poor, abused Charlotte Beers to task by saying, "You don't need to 'brand' America, it's already branded."

But because of that brand--what other people think of American values--expectations of U.S. behavior are very high. "People want to like us, they want to believe in us, and we continue to hurt them," Zogby said.

Google director of global public policy and government Andrew McLaughlin provided some unintended comic relief by trying to convince the group that he was from the future, where apparently there are no radio or television, only the Internet. U.S. efforts that revolve around an "authoritative speaker and unwashed masses will fail," he intoned, adding that he found the whole conversation about what to do with U.S. radio and TV broadcasting "stale." I won't go further into McLaughlin except to say the jeans they wear in the future look very sturdy.

A videoconference with Oscar Morales, credited with the Facebook campaign that brought millions into Colombia's streets to protest the FARC, had some technical glitches but Morales still managed the audience a hit of the possibilities of grassroots, self-organizing civic action.

In the audience was Amb. Cynthia Schneider (former envoy to the Netherlands), who noted that the mere idea of merit-based competition such as American Idol--duplicated several times already in the Middle East--was radical. Another speaker noted that Beijing attempted to suppress mobile-phone voting on a Chinese Idol-type program for a couple years before giving up and allowing it to happen.

Edward Borgerding, CEO of Abu Dhabi Media Co., outlined the problem traditional media face: Not only are non-traditional media taking share from traditional broadcasters, the total number of dollars in the media system overall may be shrinking.

I was surprised by Smita Singh, director of the Global Development Program at the Hewlett Foundation, and MTV's president of global digital media Mika Salmi. The two of them convinced me that large philanthropic NGOs are much bigger do-gooders on the world stage than I'd thought, and focus on amplifying their impacts through partnerships with for-profit media. (Salmi's company partners with the Kaiser foundation, for example, on an anti-AIDS program in Africa.)

Finally, I had to leave before the screening of the 1982 Lebanon War-focused Waltz with Bashir, but my colleague Cady Susswein seemed to find it worthwhile, a "beautifully constructed cultural piece dealing with lingering emotions from war memories and Israeli guilt."

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Persians in Space


I once horrified an Iranian colleague by suggesting that Iran and the U.S. were natural allies: ethnically diverse nations that were wealthier and better-educated than their regional peers, and both with whopping superiority complexes based on past successes.

Iran has always felt that it, not Egypt and especially not those nuts over in Saudi Arabia, should be seen as the rightful leader of the Muslim world, as it was during the Safavid period centuries ago.

Yesterday Tehran gave a big boost to its muttered claims of superiority by launching its first-ever satellite, a feat that no other Muslim country is even close to duplicating.

Like China's launching of men into space over the past few years, the satellite launch demonstrates technological leadership and discipline that's head and shoulders above any regional competitor.

Although the satellite is small, from a soft-power standpoint it wouldn't matter whether Tehran had launched a Nerf football into orbit. It's a clear win for Iran, and on the 30th anniversary of the Revolution to boot.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Understanding Islam, Digitally


Comes word from Joshua Fouts* at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs that he and fellow fellow Rita J. King have some long-awaited work products from their "Understanding Islam Through Virtual Worlds" project.

They've either created or toured various Muslim-centric worlds within Second Life, made friends, conducted interviews, and concluded that virtual-reality worlds like this can be excellent venues for low-risk communication and collaboration between East and West.

Plus they've got the YouTube video, policy recommendations (PDF), and even comic book (PDF) to prove it.

There's a lot of potential to be mined here, particularly since the new U.S. administration is clearly more tech-savvy than its predecessors.

At this point I would make the same points I usually do whenever I hear anyone trumpeting the Internet as a key to international citizen-to-citizen communication: On a global scale, almost no one is on the Internet--barely one person in six, if you believe Wikipedia. There are especially few online in the Muslim world, and those tend to be disproportionately wealthy and well-educated.

Then I would normally ask, What's the point of trying to use Second Life to reach and communicate people who already have access to the Internet's massive buffet of information and opinion?

But then I remember that Cold War public diplomacy was not just focused on radio and other mass media as tools to reach foreign publics; there were also the U.S. cultural centers, touring jazz bands, speaking tours by prominent Americans and so on, all of which were almost unavoidably aimed at wealthy elites in other countries.

Seen through that light, virtual projects like "Understanding Islam..." should get serious examination by policy-makers as an additional arrow in the PD quiver, not to mention funding. Particularly since Dave Brubeck is now a bit too old to travel.

*Full disclosure: I worked for Josh and his former employer, the USC Center on Public Diplomacy, at a public-diplomacy conference in early 2006.
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